‘Get over it’: at some point, anyone who has a mental illness has probably been told this or been told something similar- snap out of it, catch yourself on, wise up, get on with it, pick yourself up, dry your eyes etc, etc.
I have anyway. I know friends who have been told similar things, have seen people online be inundated with comments saying as much, and generally, there seems to be a pervasive attitude by people that those with mental illnesses should be able to just ‘get on with it’, or ‘get over it’.
There is a particular kind of fork I have to use. We have maybe four different styles of fork, each with different patterns, and I can only use the shiny, thick handled silver ones with small dot work around the edges. If there are no clean ones, I might cry, work myself into a panic, refuse to eat until the dishwasher finishes running, or dig one out and wash it by hand. I panic if there are no shiny forks in the drawer and worms start to eat my brain and I feel dirty and uncomfortable and distressed and Wrong. It is one of several irrational fears I have. One of several things that has to be just so, for me to feel comfortable. Generally, it is a fear that ‘something bad’ will happen, a sense that all will not be right in the world if I don’t carry out this action.
So when the fork is not in the drawer tonight, I panic. I try to rationalise. I try to tell myself It Will Be Ok. My hand hovers over the other forks, trying to decide which would be an acceptable alternative. I pick one up, turn it over in my hand. I shake. My eyes tear up and the worms start squirming. I want to fight it, I really do. I want to eat my damn pasta with any old fork and not give a fucking shit, because really, it is just a bloody fork and I should not be crying over it and I know that it is irrational. That really, nothing ‘bad’ will happen if I use another.
But it all builds up and it feels too uncomfortable a feeling to sit with, so I set the Other fork back in the drawer and fetch a ‘right’ one from the dishwasher. There is a bowl of soapy water sitting in the sink and the sponge is in it. And all I think about is the germs from all the dirty dishes that are lying in the bowl, and the sponge festering in there too, and I feel Uncomfortable. I pick out the sponge and twist on the tap and trying to ignore the thoughts that scream that the sponge is infested, infected, infiltrated with GERMS, I lift the fairy liquid to clean my fork (under the tap, rather than in the bowl). Mum spins round and screams at me for wasting fairy liquid, wasting hot water, USE THE BLOODY BOWL RIGHT THERE, THERE IS SOAP AND HOT WATER IN THERE. She is wrestling to get the bottle out of my hand and I keep squeeze squeeze squeezing because I Need To. I cannot, cannot, cannot possibly wash my fork in a bowl full of dirty water. I squeak: but it’s dirty.
“Get over yourself.”
If only it were that easy- getting over a mental illness, getting over the thought patterns, the compulsions, intrusions, obsessiveness and resulting behaviours stretching back into childhood, that I have carried with me for as long as I can remember. A lot of it is ingrained in me, and for all the awarness I have, for all my ability to recognise when I am having an intrusive thought, or a compulsion, or am catastrophising or generalising, I am unable to stop it, or stop myself from engaging in the behaviour that will make it Go Away.
That’s the thing: mental illnesses- particularly conditions like anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder- are ingrained in the individual, borne out of years of disordered thinking patterns or traumatic events that have altered chemicals in the brain. It is not, simply, a case of ‘getting over it’ or ‘snapping out of it’- if it was, sure as hell so many of us would not still be suffering from such conditions.
More than anything though, those three short words sting. Completely and utterly dismissive. It reduces severe, complex and enduring conditions into something that is small, pathetic, pitiful. Such phrases are usually tossed around off handedly, said with a sneer and a look of disgust. ‘Get over it’ is demeaning, belittling and invalidates something that is very real and scary and frightening and difficult for the sufferer.
Truthfully, I don’t think anyone is in a position to tell someone to ‘get over’ something, be it an illness or stress or a relationship breakdown or a failed exam or something else altogether. I don’t think anyone has the right to tell someone else that their pain isn’t valid, that their struggles are small or ‘silly’ in comparison to something else. I work at a school, and if I child bumps into someone, or scrapes their knee, I don’t snap at them to ‘get over it’, even though to me, a scrape on the knee isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Key words being: to me. What might seem small or insignificant to YOU might feel or be very different for someone else. What YOU might be able to cope with, someone mightn’t. What seems pathetic or silly to YOU might feel like a life or death situation to someone else.
When it comes to mental health, the ‘get over it’ thing is a little old, and very frustrating. I do not want to have a panic attack over forks, or to feel controlled by the rules in my head, or to feel the levels of fear and agitation and panic I do when I don’t follow them. If I could ‘snap out of it’, ‘grow up’, ‘get over it’, I would. For years I’ve joked with teachers and nurses and doctors that I would like a new brain, a switch to turn it off, a magic wand to make it go away. But it won’t-not overnight, not ‘just like that’, the way the ‘get over it’ comment suggests I can or should be able to.
What it boils down to though, is the fact that people just don’t get it. And that’s ok- I don’t expect people to get it, or understand why I do the things I do or react in a certain way, but I just ask that people try and be a little more sensitive. Try not to snap at someone to ‘get over it’ if you don’t understand why it is they are so upset about it in the first place. After all, no one is expected to ‘get over’ cancer or diabetes or arthritis or high blood pressure or a broken leg- so how about we stop telling people to ‘get over’ their symptoms of mental illness?